NASA is just days away from slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth.
The agency’s long-awaited Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will impact with the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos on Monday (Sept. 26), if all goes according to plan. The DART mission launched on Nov. 23, 2021 on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and is now hurtling through deep space toward the binary near-Earth asteroid (65803) Didymos and its moonlet Dimorphos.
The mission, which is managed by the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), is humanity’s first attempt to determine if we could alter the course of an asteroid, a feat that might one day be required to save human civilization. While changing the orbit of an asteroid 7 million miles away sounds daunting, DART team members from NASA and JHUAPL said during a media briefing on Thursday (Sept. 22) that they are confident that the years of planning that have gone into the mission will lead to success.
Traveling at speeds of 4.1 miles per second (6.6 km/s), or 14,760 mph (23,760 kph), the DART spacecraft will impact the 560-foot-wide (170 meters) Dimorphos, a moonlet that orbits the other member of its binary system, the 2,600-foot-wide (780 m) asteroid Didymos.
Doing so, NASA believes, will shift Dimorphos’ orbital period enough to alter its gravitational effects on the larger Didymos, changing the trajectory of the pair.
Katherine Calvin, chief scientist and senior climate advisor at NASA, said that while DART will be a key test of this “kinetic impactor” planetary defense strategy, the mission will also produce valuable science that will allow astronomers to peer back into the deep history of the solar system.
“We’re looking at asteroids to make sure that we don’t find ourselves in their path. We also study asteroids to learn more about the formation and history of our solar system. Every time we see an asteroid, we’re catching a glimpse of a fossil of the early solar system,” Calvin said.
“These remnants capture a time when planets like Earth were forming,” she added. “Asteroids and other small bodies also delivered water, other ingredients of life to Earth as it was maturing. We’re studying these to learn more about the history of our solar…